The United Nations Security Council voted 8 to 3 against a Russian resolution condemning Western airstrikes on Syria

The United Nations Security Council voted 8 to 3 against a Russian resolution condemning Western airstrikes on Syria. Credit Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

After a heated two-hour debate, the United Nations Security Council rejected a Russian resolution on Saturday that would have condemned airstrikes carried out hours earlier by the United States, Britain and France against Syria.

Russia, China and Bolivia voted for the resolution, but eight members voted against and four abstained. Even a majority vote would have been largely symbolic, as the three Western powers that carried out the attack hold veto power and would certainly have blocked it.

Symbolic as the debate was, its ferocity underscored the bitter divisions within the Security Council over whether Syria’s government had carried out a suspected chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7, and whether the three Western allies were justified in using force without a clear legal mandate.

The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, who had warned on Friday that “the Cold War is back with a vengeance,” urged the nations on Saturday “to show restraint” and to avoid a situation “spiraling out of control.”

Russia’s ambassador, Vasily A. Nebenzia, said the three Western powers had carried out “aggression against a sovereign state, which is on the front lines of the fight against terrorism,” without proof that chemical weapons had been used, much less by forces overseen by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Russia’s ally.

“The United States and its allies continue to demonstrate blatant disregard for international law,” he said.

Mr. Nebenzia heaped scorn on a claim made Friday by the United States defense secretary, Jim Mattis, that the United States Constitution gave the president the right to take military action to defend “vital national interests.”

“It’s time for Washington to learn that the international code of behavior regarding the use of force is regulated by the United Nations Charter,” Mr. Nebenzia said.

The United Nations Charter recognizes two justifications for using military force against another country, self-defense or the permission of the Security Council.

Mr. Nebenzia also said that the Western powers should not have acted until a chemical-weapons inspection team, which arrived in Syria on Saturday, had been given a chance to do its work. The inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will try to determine whether chemical weapons had been used in the Douma attack.

Nikki R. Haley, the American ambassador, called the American-led intervention “justified, legitimate and proportionate.”

She said that the United States, Britain and France had acted “to deter the future use of chemical weapons by holding the Syrian regime responsible for its atrocities against humanity.”

“The pictures of dead children were not fake news,” she said. “They were the result of the Syrian regime’s barbaric inhumanity.”

The United States “gave diplomacy chance after chance after chance,” she said, only to have Russia block, last Tuesday, an effort to set up an independent body to investigate chemical attacks in Syria.

“While Russia was busy protecting the regime, Assad took notice,” Ms. Haley said. “The regime knew that it could act with impunity, and it did.” The United States and its allies “were not going to let that stand,” she said, adding that Mr. Trump had told her that the United States was “locked and loaded” and ready to strike again should Syria use banned weapons again.

“When our president draws a red line, the president enforces the red line,” she said, a clear rebuke of Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, who in 2013 declined to retaliate against Syria after a chemical weapons attack even though he had called the use of such weapons “a red line.”

Karen Pierce, the British ambassador, defended the assault as a “limited, targeted and effective strike” made after British intelligence found strong evidence that Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible. The French ambassador, François Delattre, said that Mr. Assad knew that he was flouting global norms.

“The Syrian regime knew full well what it was doing,” he said. “Once again, it wanted to test the threshold of the international community’s tolerance, and it found it.”

Sacha Llorenty, the Bolivian ambassador, countered that “you can’t combat the alleged violation of international law by violating international law.”

He accused the United States, Britain and France of being “imperialist” empires that “consider themselves superior to the rest of the world.” He added: “They think that they’re exceptional. They think that they’re indispensable. And hence, they think that they are above the law, above international law.”

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